Stability and identity RanaBy Muhammad Amir

WHILE its effects are palpably visible in political and economic ambits, instability also adds to confusion and insecurities, and causes behavioural changes among individuals. It can even trigger crises of personal and social identities, which Pakistani power elites tend to confuse with external factors threatening our national security.
The current atmosphere of political and economic chaos is not new. Yet it presents the country’s renewed challenge to come out of its chronic instability. Apparently, the current political regime is also failing to bring some fresh approaches and new perspectives to cure our economic malaise. On the other hand, it is miserably struggling to sell an impression of stability to the people, who are ­enormously agonised by the ongoing economic adjustments and corrections.
Anxiety kills the potential for productivity and creativity, so essential for the growth and development of state and society. The recent Quetta Literary Festival (QLF) reflected this growing anxiety among the intelligentsia and educated youth of Pakistan. For one, most discussions on the future of our state and society linked it to the prospective direction of Pakistan’s stability and identity.
Stability has always been the top priority of any state, because it also indicates that the state is functioning well. However, stability cannot be imposed; it comes as a natural outcome of coherent policies and actions of state institutions and cordial relations between state and society. Instability, nonetheless, triggers various types of insecurities among the state organs and segments of society. A sense of discrimination and humiliation not only compounds this problem but also aggravates identity crises among communities, particular those with ­problematic group histories.
Dignity and empowerment may be more important than economics or security.
The common Pakistani faces multiple levels of discrimination at the hands of multiple actors and due to many factors. Some believe they are being discriminated against on the basis of their race, language, culture, facial appearance, faith or sect. Ethnic, religious and sectarian-based profiling is common and often used by the state as well as majority ethnic, religious and sectarian groups. A study by an Islamabad-based think tank, titled Who Am I? A Study on Identity and Co-Existence in Pakistan, is reflective of debates at the QLF, indicating that while people of small federating units and/or ethno-religious minorities feel discrimination when interacting with public departments or state institutions, two factors in particular aggravate them. The first is linked with human dignity and the second with empowerment.
A significant majority of the study’s participants believed in human dignity more than economics or security, and asserted that it is one’s sense of dignity or lack thereof that develops identity. The dignity factor is relatively new, but has been developing along with securitisation over the last two decades, in the form of security check posts on highways, in urban areas, on campuses and in government departments.
The study also noted that most of the respondents from Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the latter’s tribal districts had experienced some sort of humiliation at check posts, which they interpret as profiling. One can understand that these two provinces have suffered greatly from terrorism and insurgencies, which have added to their insecurity and sensitivity. Perhaps this is why security institutions have also worked on improving their social skills in recent years, to respect local sensitivities. However, it remains a major factor in the people’s increasing sense of insecurity and humiliation.
It was also noted that educated youth (especially in Balochistan, Sindh, KP’s tribal districts and Gilgit-Baltistan) feel less empowered in society. A big segment of youth, regardless of religious or education backgrounds, joined militant groups, not necessarily by falling for extremist or separatist ideologies, but because they were awed by the militants’ stature, and wanted to be seen the same way. The desire for power and prestige in their areas is so pronounced that these youngsters were suffering from a crisis of identity.
Similar factors can be identified in Pakistan’s identity politics, which is centred on group identities. Nationalist political and social movements want a broader sense of belonging and ownership in the system, which the power elites only share with a select group of cronies.
It is interesting that, in the majoritarian Punjab, a sense of cultural marginalisation is resurfacing. The Punjabi intelligentsia complains that, for the sake of national unity, it has sacrificed its cultural and ethnic identity. However, voices from other provinces feel that the Punjabi power elites should have adopted a federalist approach rather than emphasising a strong centre and creating uniformity. The federalist approach would have provided a better coherence among the federating units, and Punjab should also have not compromised its ­cultural background.
The debate on identity and stability cannot be complete without discussing the role of religion. The state and power elites still strongly believe that religion is the only factor that can glue the nation and, in this attempt, promote religiously inspired actors who follow their design. A variety of such actors are at the elites’ service; the latter choose and abandon them as needed. According to the study, using religion for national coherence is not only an inclination in Punjab; such voices’ power is gradually increasing in Sindh and Balochistan too.
One interesting finding of the study was about local-level problems and how people relate these with broader sociopolitical issues. The majority of respondents highlighted civic issues such as access to clean water, education, health, population management, traffic, etc. This was followed by issues related to personal liberties such as freedom of expression and physical security. Strikingly, many talked about local-level disputes in the shape of class differences or local mafias. However, the majority believed that even if the solutions to these day-to-day issues would not help resolve big issues such as an identity crisis, they support more ­freedom and sociopolitical securities for a better and healthier society and stable state.
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